You Blink, You Pay? The Latest in Biometrics for Auto Insurance


5 min read

A once-fictional technology seemingly used by the likes of James Bond might soon be a feature in a car near you. Biometrics, which refer to the “measurement and analysis of unique physical or behavioral characteristics,” like voice patterns, fingerprints, brainwaves, and retina scanning, may soon be used to monitor driver behavior and even help determine car insurance rates.

New developments in biometrics seek to mirror what usage-based insurance monitoring devices—sometimes called telematics—are already doing, but in increasingly sophisticated ways.

In July of last year, we examined Jaguar Land Rover’s research which monitors a driver’s brainwaves through a car’s steering wheel to assess his or her level of attention. Since then, both automobile manufacturers and insurance companies alike have been filing for monitoring device patents at a furious pace. While most devices are still theoretical (and certainly by no means mainstream), biometric devices and cameras in vehicles could spell big changes for driving—and insurance—as we know them.

Young woman's face in black and white

The Latest in Biometric Technology

Ford recently opened an Automotive Wearables Experience Lab in its Research and Innovation Center, reports Mobile ID World. The automaker’s plan is to use input from wearable devices (like watches) to enhance driver safety by tracking biometrics related to alertness and calibrating its semi-autonomous driving system, says Mobile ID World.

State Farm recently filed four patent applications with the U.S. Patent Office for technologies that would allow the insurance company to monitor its drivers in real time, reports CBS News. These technologies go beyond the vehicle sensors currently used for programs like Progressive’s Snapshot. In fact, the devices State Farm appears to be developing seem downright futuristic. State Farm plans to develop technologies including:

  • Optical sensors to monitor eye movement and blinking
  • Biometric sensors to record skin conductivity (sweating) and heart rate
  • A microphone to record voice modulation (like shouting at other drivers or even cursing to yourself)
  • Recording of “gaze direction”
  • Infrared and ultrasound sensors
  • “Haptic” devices —similar to a Fitbit—to be worn by the drivers

Allstate, for their part, recently received patents for devices that could allow the company to monitor their customers’ vehicles for distractions, monitor what’s going on outside of the car, and collect health data from drivers, reports WTTW Chicago Public Media, and they may even begin selling this customer data in a bid to increase revenue, reports Bloomberg Business. An Allstate spokesperson argued that the company’s plans don’t differ from practices of companies like Google, who also collects and sells its customers’ data. If that makes you uneasy, you’re not alone, but Allstate Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Tom Wilson argues that in reality, if the discount is big enough, past experience predicts that customers won’t actually mind that much.

Male driver arm on steering wheel

Will Biometric Monitoring Help Drivers or Cost Them?

CBS News reports that many doctors and psychologists don’t believe biometrics like facial tics, high blood pressure, and other unique physical characteristics should be used against drivers for things like increased insurance premiums. Traveling on the road is a highly personalized experience, and while we could all stand to drive more safely, some objectively negative and aggressive behaviors, like cursing at another driver, might actually release tension and make someone less likely to engage in road rage, argues CBS News.

Insurance companies take the stance that because current usage-based monitoring devices encourage safer driving habits—like not driving too fast, not driving during early morning hours (the most dangerous time to be on the road is between 12 a.m. and 5 a.m.), and maintaining a safe following distance (and thereby avoiding hard braking), more sophisticated biometric devices will increase safety even more.

Of course money is a factor, too. Auto insurance is a competitive business with thin margins, and as it’s relatively easy for customers to switch insurers, each company must both beat competitors’ prices by maximizing profits and trying to reduce their risk of payouts. Don Griffin, vice president of Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, told WTTW: “The whole idea behind [monitoring devices] is to get the consumer a better price,” said Griffin. “Get them to pay what they think they should for the risk that they present to the insurance company.”

Ready or Not, Here It Comes

Insurance experts predict that within four to six years monitoring devices will be all but mandatory, and those opting out will have to pay a premium. The director of insurance for the Consumer Federation of America, J Robert Hunter, told me (writing for Edmunds) that he believes tracking drivers’ behavior behind the wheel will lead to safer driving habits, but customers should ensure they know exactly what data the insurer is collecting at all times, and how it’s being used.

But while usage-based insurance programs are available through auto insurers now on a voluntary basis, automakers and insurers developing biometric technologies have only just begun.

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